Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Trickle Down Post Modernism
One confronts the average man's working definition of modern art as being the sort of difficult object, whether visual art or literary text, as being something that's open ended into which the viewer can infer any significance . This works fairly well as a definition in a nut shell, accurate in the intentions of what the host of self-referential aesthetics enable us (or forces us, rather) to do if we the audience are to make the effort to bear witness worth the sustained use of our senses. This wreaks havoc with conservative aesthetes who think art should be a giver of laws instead of platforms from which one constructs their multi-faceted paradigms and (in a phrase) deconstructions. One might sympathize with the law givers for reasons having not a bit to do with maintaining and orderly and chaste life, but with the particular tedium of modernist (nee post modernist) strategies. The self-referencing of the medium, the placing of format as the subject of the work ceases to be an interrogation of played out narrative explanations as to what experience leads to and becomes a cloying club of knowing gestures, a wink, a nod, an elbow in the ribs, the patois of yet another privileged group suffocating in their theoretical enclosures.
A key reason for postmodern writing was because reality itself had gotten too strange, obtuse, inflated with its own self-justification for writers to try and be more fantastic than. Cited before, especially from the writings of Brit critic Tony Tanner in his book City of Words, the only way for literature to thrive and reasonably to a fantastic reality is to attempt and be even more fantastic, to shed itself of the need to be faithful to reality and to become even more aware of how fantastic language and technology have caught up with and surpassed conventional fiction's ability to penetrate it's center.
Did Derrida and Barthes actually "define", or address at all the rather slippery notion of "post modernism"? Seems more appropriate to say that they, in their respective inquiries, high lighted some real conceptual issues in Continental philosophy, and created another layer of jargon that made an industry out of what, in retrospect, seems a small addition to our ways of thinking about writing.
Both were inspirations to a generation of literary critics who wanted some Gallic gravitas in their corner so they may speak philosophically with out actually philosophers--or so they may extend their embedded existentialism with into the world with a bright and shiny new paint job--but my reading of them didn't come across the word "post modern". I may be wrong.
Siding with Jacob for a moment, the act of preferring one writer over another with regard to value , style and impact constitutes a choice, choice being a decision. This personal canon-formation, a nascent writers' set of examples of what writing can be, ought to be, and where writing ought to grow from, is obviously a set of choices, albeit convoluted.
Likewise, I doubt that there's a moment in a writer's activity when they are not aware of the shadow of past genius that is cast over them, the Greats--however defined--that they aim their work away from, toward an originality, and maybe genius,that is their own. The anxiety of influence, courtesy of Harold Bloom, is almost an observable dynamic in sensible study. The scholar, in turn, only uncovers who the influences are in the course of credible research, but does not choose them. The temptation may be great, but the theorist/scholar/critic can speculate only so much in their interpretation of real data.
Writers begin with private views and prejudices about the given world, perceived through their eyes, their sets of experience, but an aim of writing to begin with is too seek consensus: it's the shock of recognition, among other things, that gives the aesthetic satisfaction with a narrative that's rendered well. Private projects don't stay private: they enter into the reading world in an attempt to give us more ideas, fixtures, metaphors to help us think about ourselves . That is all, I think, that literature can ever promise, the work itself. Criticism, like literature proper, is hardly a fixed set of standards, a Biblical claim of absolute, final totality. It's an activity that's adjacent, secondary to, literature, and at best can act as an aid to the reader seeking to underline salient elements that dovetail, enlarge, or illuminate the problematic nature of experience that won't, and cannot, tell you what it means.
The artist DOESN'T choose his influences, rather, he finds himself chosen by them.
Too flat an absolute a statement to be useful here: Bloom's refinement of a dialectical model to describe, in sweeping, how influence forms new writing is spectacular, but he over reaches, and over states his case with an insistence that influences choose the writer rather than the other way around. This is a deconstructive reversal that's cuter than it is precise. It's half the tale. Better to have it half and half: the writer certainly exercises choice so far as who they opt to read through their lifetime, and makes judgments based on their reading as to who matters more than others in the forming of a idiosyncratic aesthetic. The writer, as reader, is not a passive agent here.
A writer "being chosen" by their influences makes more sense, I think, when he place the statement at the moment when the writer is actually writing, when inspiration, imagination, and whatever other resources a writer has at their behest combine, churn, swirl, and combine in ways during the drafting that could result in interesting, original work. Process is a word that's horribly abused and bled of meaning these days, but here it's appropriate. Creative process is a strange ritual unique to each writer, an idiosyncratic set of habits that are the basis of the discipline needed for a writer to actually stay seated long enough to produce and bring the work through all it's stages. It's the mysterious clutch of protocols that unleash the influences into the creative roil , and it's here, during these churning, erupting , fever pitched sessions where a writer looses the ability to control the influences about them, large and small, whether from their personal reading, or from the larger culture: it's here where the writer is literally "chosen" by the influences and styles about them and literally have their style defined and guided. So it seems to me, anyway. For the force of the unconscious in the work, of course: memories emerge, scenarios spontaneously form, and arcs are drafted and written out to link disparate sketches on a narrative spine that rapidly becomes a fleshed-out work.
But the steps to get to the point where writing actually commences, I believe, begins with some conscious choices the writer makes in the world that's given to them: deciding what has value among the given--whatever we mean by that-- constitutes choice. What happens beyond that is what becomes problematic, and subject to niggling disagreement. But conscious human agency is not
The self is earned, not invented, some might say, but I might say that the thing which is earned is now less constructed. Well and good, but someone had to invent the criteria of a "self" that's awarded to someone who's "earned" the appellation. A gift wrapped box of "self" does not pop into being at some ceremony one attends on graduation day. Something that is earned needs to have a definition, however slippery or subjective, and that entails construction, more choices to be made in the inventing of a generalized "self".Anything that can be "earned", abstract or material, first needs to be invented.
Anything that is "constructed" is thereby real, whether abstract or material. A constructed entity is operative and has an effect on one's conduct through a problematic sphere. If a self is "constructed", it has dimensions, it has definable limits, it has conditions that are a premise a personality is initially based and layered upon with experience. If it can do that, it's as real as anything as anything you might throw a tin can at. A thing's existence, then, is understood as the actuality of its essence. Allen Ginsberg, speaking of a conversations he had with his mentor William Carlos Williams, gave a definition of Modernist perception as being that "...the thing itself is it's own adequate symbol..." Further, there is the strong suggestion that there is no God in this scheme, that the "thing" being perceived did not require an ideal type, or any other kind of Ideal superstructure in order to exist, to be. Ginsberg, and later poet/critic Jerome Rothenberg, gave a suggestion that this was Western writing's back-door approach toward more open structures, to decidedly un-systematized philosophies, witnessed in the Beat flirtations with Zen. This brings us knocking at the door of an extended Modernist approach--a style in which avant-garde procedure became an ironic protocol to literary writing--that became, in some critical finessing, post modernism.
How could the beliefs be useful if they weren't true? I could have many false beliefs that are coherent, but of what use would they be? The test of any theory is in how it works, and the gauge for how it works is in whether it's employment is of observable benefit to others, i.e., does it give some one and their community a coherent and workable structure to live life, to promote what would locally be defined as the Greater Good, and likewise provide a means for helping a community absorb change, how however and why ever it happens. The test of whether a theory is useful, if I remember my William James, is whether such a methodology leads one to a truth that's germane in situ. The usefulness of a theory is judged by how it side steps the confounding and conflating "proofs" of what constitutes Truth, with the big "t", and instead enables one to find something that works in mending the immediate situation.
Speaking for myself, Lost in the Funhouse is nicely written gripe in which author John Barth, flowing of pen, voices a buried resentment against his own reading habits, a collection that's kind of dull: he voices the complaint against the dreary optimism of modernism, the same dull complaints, in fact, and yet wishes that had been him, rather than Joyce or Faulkner at the key moments of break-through novel writing: a Bloomian moment with his career, with his writing desperately bloated books, his "literature of exhaustion" to demonstrate how much more radical he would have been had he the power to intervene in recent literary history, and also a classic example of the School of Resentment. Barth, I think, resents his teachers, or at least writes like he does.. His work, though important in the postmodern genre, is among it's dullest. The Floating Opera, though, is a masterpiece: brief, funny, unusual, unselfconscious in it's re-formation of the novel. Many readers would find Infinite Jest too hard to follow because they are reared on typical mainstream fiction that sticks to strict, world -shrinking genres. The Modernists we've mentioned here, if in passing, are Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett, among others. Faulkner was the only one who produced works resembling mainstream entertainments, with As I Lay Dying and Intruder in the Dust, yet even these less consequential efforts in his body of work are daunting for the vaguely referenced "general reader".
It's a tenet of Modernism that in order for writing to be truly contemporary, it must achieve a level of difficulty that allegedly force the reader to reassess their take on experience. Impenetrability was encouraged, so far as the Modernist project encouraged any specific tendency among its early practitioners. "Make it new" was a chief slogan at the height of the Modernist literary movement, courtesy of Karl Shapiro, and the works, assimilated into academic study, don't comprise the sort of literature that makes for lazy readers. Rather, it's techniques set up the ideal reader, say, "reared in the Modernist style", to grasp the manner and aim of a Postmodern writing, which again, I believe, in it's best expression, is an extension of the Modernist agenda, albeit tweaked about the edges with a bankrupt critical apparatus. The theory cannot keep apace with the actual imaginative writing: sorry, but many theorists seem like bright children adept at taking things apart who cannot quite put them back together in anyway that's useful, meaningful.
The accurate statement about Modernists, in general, is that theirs wasn't a search for the single, unifying meaning, the single, capital "Truth", but rather that human beings have a capacity of breaking old habits and developing new ways of seeing the world outside their skins. There is a notion that that writing, art, architecture, film, et al, can be used in unique ways to bring about new perceptions of the addressed world, new ideas about human experience, rather than finding the one unchanging Truth, the single metaphysical road sign. Modernism operates, in a real and traceable sense, within the the concept of the Pluralistic Universe, addressed by William James.
There is truth out there, goes the assumption, but it's less about an absolute dogma about an underlining definition than it is about how the human personality comes to perceive and form a sense of place and belonging within it. The search for singular Truth was a vain task, noted by Eliot, Pound and others: at it's best expression, Modernism remains an invigorating vehicle , a keen investigative sense. Postmodernism searches for fallacies, so called, but we're stuck with the old binary oppositions that deconstructionists find offensive: we cannot have a definable sense of what is false unless we give ourselves over to an idea of what it opposes, the truth, or truths, plural. By default, postmodernism continues the Modernist project for what is useful in our descriptions. An extension of Modernism, in other words.